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How pig photos might help us regain civility
The decline of local media is a key factor in America's ugly political scene. Can that be turned around?
This is the correct way to photograph a pig. Read on to learn how you, too, can do it. (Photo by Laura Anderson on Unsplash)
Perhaps you have never tried to photograph a pig. I have, so I can tell you that it’s not as easy as you may think if you’re unfamiliar with porcine deportment.
The pig, you see, is likely to turn away, leaving you only a nice visual angle on a future rump roast rather than the preferred view of the pig’s snout. Should you ever find yourself in this predicament, you’ll be grateful for this solution: Simply enlist a helper who will go to the other side of the pig and raise a little ruckus, thereby prompting the pig to pivot back toward you, so that you can quickly snap your pig portrait.
You’re welcome! This is but one of the handy lessons I learned as a newspaper reporting intern many years ago, in this case on a day when I was dispatched to a rural Indiana county fair so that my little paper could spread the local fame of the youngsters who had raised the county’s 4-H grand champion and reserve champion pigs. I got the lambs and calves, too, though by then I had grasped the first lesson of farmland photography: If you want your livestock shot to make the front page, don’t settle for a rear view. (Also, by the way, if you’re shooting the top rabbit, it must be in the kid’s arms. Cute.)
The little Corn Belt newspaper where I covered the county fair — and the Little League season, and the fire department pancake breakfast — is still being published, but it’s a weekly now, not a daily. Still, it’s in a lucky community, because thousands of newspapers have disappeared altogether in recent years, and hundreds more have been diminished to so-called “ghost newspapers,” offering little more than a local nameplate and a few relevant articles created in another newsroom miles away. A new Northwestern University study projects that one-third of the newspapers that were publishing in the U.S. in 2005 will be gone by next year.1
Local journalism is in crisis, as we’ve noted in The Upstate American before. What’s increasingly clear, though, is that the decline of community journalism is both a cause and a reflection of the disintegration of America’s social fabric. And that, in turn, is why some of the outrageous behavior of political leaders — up to and including the overlord of the outrageous himself, Donald Trump — draws little more than a shrug, if not an outright ovation, from otherwise decent people, whom you’re sure would once have been offended or embarrassed.
The decline of the American community, which has been exacerbated by the enfeeblement of local media, is part and parcel of the rise of incivility across the country — without which Donald Trump would be just a retired reality TV star. That is, Trump has amplified the rise of incivility in politics, to become both its avatar and the cause of its emergence as a crisis. This week, Markwayne Mullen, a first-year Republican U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, rose from his seat in a committee hearing and preposterously challenged the president of the United Auto Workers, Sean O’Brien, to a fistfight.2 That’s what passes for congressional action in the MAGA-ruled Republican Party. Mullen, a former plumber who had a home-improvement radio show before he was elected to Congress, is 46. Do you have any doubt that Trump would behave similarly if he weren’t 77 years old and obese?
No previous generation would have tolerated a presidential candidate who characterized his political opponents, as Trump did this week, as “vermin,” the term Adolf Hitler used to denigrate Jews as not worthy of human consideration, nor one who suggested, as Trump did earlier, that the nation’s just-retired top military leader deserves execution. It’s impossible to imagine any prior generation supporting a candidate who openly promises authoritarianism if he’s back in the White House: Trump told a Univision interviewer last week that if he’s re-elected and learns that an opponent is gaining ground, he’d tell the Justice Department, “Go down and indict them.” That’d take care of that, Trump said. “They’d be out of business. They’d be out of the election,” he said.3 How is that any different from any number of tinhorn dictators Americans have historically detested, and that our CIA surreptitiously sought to undermine?
So you have to wonder: How can any patriotic American find such antidemocratic and unlawful behavior acceptable? Is the problem that the fans of Trump (who faces 91 felony counts in four criminal cases, remember) don’t know about all this, because they’re addicted to Fox News and its even more hard-right imitators — which steadfastly block negative coverage of our own would-be autocrat? Or have our community values so declined that America is ready to join the ranks of countries where tyrants have bent democracy to their will, like Hungary, whose leader, Viktor Orbán, Trump praises because “he runs it properly, he runs it strong…”?
In an earlier time, more Americans might know about such talk. They would know of Trump’s plans, if re-elected, for terrifying mass roundups and deportations, costly tariffs on all foreign goods and the installation of 54,000 pre-vetted MAGA partisans in place of civil servants across the federal government “to rip off the restraints imposed on the previous 46 presidents,” as Axios reported. Even people who didn’t seek out political news might at one time have stumbled across it in their local newspaper — maybe as they were looking for the photos of their kid’s Little League team, like all those I shot one summer at my little newspaper in Indiana decades ago.
But the pace of newspaper closings has picked up, so that over the past two years, newspapers have shut down at a rate exceeding two per week, according to that Northwestern study. And roughly half of all U.S. counties are now served only by a single remaining local news source — typically a weekly newspaper, which isn’t going to be reporting anything about Donald Trump getting confused by which country his pal Orbán runs.4 In case you missed it: Trump said last month that Orbán leads Turkey, not Hungary, and then referred to its border with Russia, which is something that neither Turkey nor Hungary has. And Fox pretends it’s Joe Biden who is slipping? He is not, from anything I can see. Trump is.
So you may ask: Are so many Americans tolerant of this because they don’t notice it, or because Trump’s carelessness matches the way they’ve come to approach their own community in this era of frayed civic relationships? Either cause can be traced in part to the decline of trustworthy media in the digital age.
Americans are paying less attention to the news now than they used to, as we noted last week: Pew Research reports that the percentage of Americans who say they follow the news only now and then or hardly ever rose by almost two-thirds, from 17 percent to 28 percent, in just the last six years. 5 So the share of our neighbors likely to know what’s going on beyond their own line of sight is smaller than it was in the more congenial era of the 20th century.
Even if they are following the news, however, Americans may well be getting it from untrustworthy sources — especially since many of the digital platforms that almost 90 percent of Americans say they consult at least some of the time for news don’t have rigorous vetting policies to try to reduce false information.
Most egregiously offensive in that realm these days is Elon Musk’s X, formerly Twitter. Musk got rid of most of the fact-checking staff when he bought Twitter, making it now a haven for hate speech and misinformation. Plus, Musk often eagerly posts his own divisive and false information — this week, endorsing a scurrilous anti-Semitic message. Not long after that, a report emerged that IBM advertising was appearing on X adjacent to neo-Nazi content. IBM promptly suspended its advertising on X, along with some other major advertisers.6
Facebook, which is more careful to avoid hateful content, was once a place to enjoy just the sort of juxtaposition of the personal and the newsworthy that was typical of a community newspaper. But Facebook’s parent, Meta, changed its algorithms this year to make news content less visible, and it has ended partnerships with news organizations that were sharing their stories on the platform. So the news story that might once have slipped into a Facebook feed — right below a post showing a friend’s puppy, say — is now nowhere to be found.
Exactly that sort of serendipitous mix of content gave newspapers a generation ago a presumption of credibility in their news report. That is, a local publication that features photos of Little League teams, fire department pancake breakfasts and 4-H winners at county fairs seems to most readers an unlikely place for hate speech. Indeed, the standards of the 9,000 or so newspapers that were published in this country at the start of this century were widely deserving of their communities’ trust. Journalists were not then, nor are the journalists at the surviving 6,000 American newspapers now, “enemies of the people,” as Donald Trump has memorably said, in another echo of a tyrant (Josef Stalin, in that case).
And our communities are poorer for their loss, and our politics more brutal. Newspapers have fewer Little League photos nowadays, because there are far fewer staffers to shoot the photos, and probably because youth participation in sports has been declining for years. You might blame the latter on parents pushing their kids more to play for a college scholarship than for fun, or you might figure that it’s just because young people would rather stare at their screens than play catch. Either way, the heyday of community newspapers is past, and with its passage we have lost a bit of the glue that has held our society together.
My lesson in how to photograph a champion pig, then, is probably of little use. Chalk it up as another change wrought by the digital age, and by the era of incivility that is our current reality.
Maybe we can hope that it’s a reality that has reached its apotheosis, so that we might even dare to imagine the restoration of comity ahead. That was the hope when Trump was turned out of the White House by voters in 2020, and it still could be so. Or will that be when those pigs fly?
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Black Hills, South Dakota (Aberdeen American-News, aberdeennews.com)
Parsippany, N.J. (Daily Record, northjersey.com)
Las Vegas, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
Shreveport, La. (Shreveport Times, shreveporttimes.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Monitors trying to keep invasive bugs out of the Black Hills
Starting in the 1990s, an epidemic of mountain pine beetles killed millions of Black Hills trees. Now, as Joshua Haiar of South Dakota Searchlight reports in the Aberdeen News, there are concerns that an influx of timber from other states might bring invasive insects that could further damage tree stands in the beautiful forests. With aid from the federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act, trainloads of wildfire-damaged timber — from locations including the Klamath National Forest in California and Oregon — are headed to sawmills in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming that have fallen short of their needs. (South Dakota’s senators and its lone member of Congress, by the way, voted against that legislation.) And a state grant has contracted with an expert at South Dakota State University to monitor the timber loads, to be sure that the state doesn’t become infected with non-native species: the western pine beetle, the California five-spined ips and the California flat-headed borer.
State moving to protect students with disabilities
As schools have faced violence and drills to prepare to deal with it, stories have emerged of kids with disabilities left at the top of staircases in their wheelchairs, or told to hide on their own. According to reporting by Gene Myers in NorthJersey.com, that has prompted calls for more detailed school security plans. While the state Senate acted unanimously, there hasn’t yet been a move to send corrective legislation to the governor. But advocates now believe action may come soon on a school security bill that calls for “more thoughtful emergency planning” to protect students with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are almost a quarter million K-12 disabled students in New Jersey.
City seeks to bar convicts from downtown corridor
Las Vegas city officials have adopted a law prohibiting anyone convicted of any crimes committed within the tourist corridor downtown from returning to the area. But Michael Lyon of Nevada Current, a non-profit newsroom, reports in the Reno Gazette Journal that the ACLU is warning that the law is blatantly unconstitutional. The measure repeals the existing “order out corridor” ordinance that was adopted in the 1990s, which only applied to drug activity and prostitution, and expands it to include all misdemeanors. The ACLU warned the bill would be used to charge street performers and people experiencing homelessness with low-level offenses.
What’s that new holiday in Louisiana?
The day after Thanksgiving is now a holiday in Louisiana, by a brand-new declaration of the outgoing governor, John Bel Edwards. It’s Acadian Day, and you won’t find it anywhere else. Mackenzie Boucher reports in the Shreveport Times that the holiday is, by the governor’s proclamation, “to commemorate the arrival in Louisiana of the Acadian people from the French colony Acadia following the ceding of that colony to England in 1713.” Probably a lot of folks were planning to stay home in Louisiana on the day after Thanksgiving, anyway, to deal with temporary health issues. This gives them legal permission to do so.
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